The Tigers Claw Back

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Once dismissed as a spent force, Sri Lanka's Tamil rebels, led by the ruthless tactician Velupillai Prabhakaran, stand on the verge of a stunning victory on the Jaffna peninsula

Written off by the Sri Lankan army five years ago as a spent guerrilla force, the Tamil Tigers are close to pulling off their most stunning victory--the military conquest of the Jaffna peninsula. Opening fresh attacks almost daily against government troops positioned on roads around Jaffna City, they are stretching the Sri Lankan force to its limit and blocking all avenues for reinforcement. After months of meticulous planning, extra recruitment and training and the capture of long-range artillery, the Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ltte), have shown a new side to their talent for war.

The estimated 6,000 Tiger soldiers--about half of whom are women--have emerged as a compact attacking force using the strategy of highly mobile conventional armies favored by the world's most advanced countries. The Tigers have pushed aside several Sri Lankan army divisions, numbering around 20,000 troops, and trapped an additional 35,000 with their backs to the sea around the defense enclave of Palali air base and Kankasanthurai port with no guarantee of evacuation. As shells from the captured 122-mm Howitzers and 152-mm field guns landed inside the perimeter fence last week, Indian navy ships were cruising south of Madras, near the northern tip of Sri Lanka. They had orders to be ready to move in at short notice. President Chandrika Kumaratunga told members of Parliament the troops would stay and that emergency purchases of essential military equipment were on their way.

Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and a director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says this is the first time the Tigers have mounted such a sustained offensive against Colombo's 120,000-man military. This is really an astonishing failure on the part of the Sri Lankan army and an astonishing breakthrough on the part of the Tigers.

The makeover of the world's most successful terrorist organization into a model army can be attributed to its secretive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, 46, a confessed assassin who is poorly educated but intelligent and methodical. He takes notes on everything, says Varatharaja Perumal, the first and last leader of the short-lived, Indian-installed provincial government of Northeast Sri Lanka. He is very interested in numerology and he is fearful of the number eight in all its combinations. And he's a psychopath.

Ever since he was a teenager, Prabhakaran has been determined to create a homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamils under his leadership. To opponents, he is a murderer, having wiped out hundreds of other Tamil nationalists over the past 17 years of conflict. The Tigers have perfected the suicide killing, and victims have included a former Indian Prime Minister, a Sri Lankan President and more than 50 other prominent Sri Lankans, including cabinet ministers and legislators. To his supporters, especially among the 900,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad in Europe, North America and Australasia, Prabhakaran is the only man who can defend Tamil rights and remedy Tamil grievances. His argument is simple: the Tamils, who comprise 12.5% of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, and the majority Sinhalese cannot live together in peace. Thus a separate state, Eelam, is necessary in the Tamil heartland of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. There is a belief among Tamils that the Tigers may be bastards, but they are our bastards, says Schaffer. You find a lot of otherwise nice, sweet, reasonable people who say that they don't agree with their tactics, but the boys have put us on the map.

There is very little of the map that the Tigers have not penetrated, in one form or another. They operate a highly secretive set of businesses around the globe--including running illegal immigrants into Europe and North America--that deliver an estimated $60 million a year to the Tigers' war chest. They also own more than a dozen ships. In between smuggling arms, ammunition, explosives and illegal narcotics using different front companies, the Tigers transport rice, cement and other legitimate cargo to Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The Tigers have tapped into Tamil communities in more than 40 countries, often using violence and intimidation to collect taxes from local businesses and Tamil families--ranging from 33� a day in Canada to $300 a year in Britain. By linking Tamil issues to local politics behind innocent-looking charities, they have subtly involved politicians in the cause. Earlier this month Canadian Minister of Finance Paul Martin and Minister of International Cooperation Maria Minna attended a $40-a-plate fund-raising dinner for fact, a Tamil charitable association identified by Canadian and U.S. authorities as a vehicle for funneling funds to the Tigers. Martin, who wants to be Canada's Prime Minister, said he had done nothing wrong and that the two ministers were answering an invitation to attend a cultural event.

The ltte is a tightly structured organization with Prabhakaran firmly in charge. It operates specialized sections for each main task--fighting at sea, commando operations, intelligence, communications and finance. The international procurement network organizes all military purchases: explosives from the Balkans, multiple rocket launchers from Ukraine, surface-to-air missiles that are paid for in Bulgaria and picked up in Cambodia. Military analysts say, however, that at least 60% of the Tigers' hardware, especially heavy weapons such as artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers and even service workshops, have been captured intact from the Sri Lankan army.

The man handling this international supermarket is Kumaran Pathmanathan, known as KP to his colleagues. Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on international terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says that without Pathmanathan and his uninterrupted supply lines the Tigers would not have been so successful against the Sri Lankan army. He's an extraordinary man whose abilities have been continuously underestimated, says Gunaratna.

That seems to have been the fate--or perhaps the advantage--of the ltte since it was set up by Prabhakaran 24 years ago. The group's rivals never took it seriously-- until it began exterminating them, hunting cadres across the Jaffna peninsula and leaving corpses tied to lampposts. Successive Sri Lankan governments, along with India during its abortive three-year peacekeeping attempt, have misread Prabhakaran and the Tigers. Delhi ended up fighting them and losing. No one has infiltrated them, and they show a remarkable capacity for learning from their mistakes. Every attack is planned meticulously; sappers infiltrate the perimeter wires of camps, videotape what they see and identify dummy bunkers and fireposts. Sand models are made of the target, and each attack is rehearsed endlessly.

Most weapons training and purchases are done from manuals that are translated into Tamil and studied again and again. By contrast, training in the Sri Lankan army is a once-only affair that leaves soldiers unprepared for the ever-changing tactics of their foes. Army senior commanders are also victims of the unsettled whims of successive political leaders in Colombo. And in their midst are the favorites who take their high posts from the political patronage of whichever party is in power.

If Prabhakaran succeeds in dislodging the Sri Lankan army from the Jaffna peninsula, he is unlikely to declare that Eelam has arrived. Eelam to most Tamils is a state of mind. And until there is a political settlement with Colombo that is endorsed by the rest of the world, it is likely to remain a dream.

With reporting by R. Bhagwan Singh/Madras, Mike Blanchfield/Ottawa, Helen Gibson/London and Barry Hillenbrand/Washington